Sunday, November 25, 2007

Peter Beckett: Painting for Landscape


Thomson and the consequential members of the Group… tried to subdue the
space not just in front but behind their heads. Theirs was not to be a
replication made simply through a jellied lens set in the skull, but an
apprehension of sound and odour coming from the nerve endings.
-Harold Town

If there is one artistic concept from the past that needs revitalization in today’s world, “en plein air” is it. While previously practiced by Delacroix, Turner, Corot and others, painting en plein air – or, outside the studio “in the open air” – gained its most famous expression in the 1870s, with the French Impressionists. Freshly armed with the latest artistic arsenal, mass-produced tube paint, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cassatt and company burst forth from their studios and descended onto the streets, riverbanks, into domestic spaces and the countryside, eager to register the passing moments of weather, atmosphere and light. Many of these Impressionists were also inspired by the photographic conception of form as reflected light, and by a relatively new discovery in colour perception: the theory that a shade of any given hue is most accurately and intensely represented by making visibly present the hue’s complementary, rather than pure black. A colour is not sensed individually, but is perceived in harmony with its antithesis – red-to-green, orange-to-purple, and so on. Thus, in many Impressionist paintings a cast shadow is not a muddy thing at all, but often contains the most complex visual description of illumination.

Plein air painting of the Impressionist variety was also timely for sociological reasons. Its practitioners produced enduring visual metaphors that helped capture something of the new hectic bustle, social anxiety and class antagonisms that defined modern life under emergent industrial capitalism: holistic patterning, non-hierarchical composition, quotidian subject matter, high-key and sometimes lurid colour, sudden swaths of loose and thickly-applied brushwork. While most of the Impressionists were not really political radicals, the form their art took irresistibly came to illustrate Marx’s famous dictum that, with modernity, everything solid “melts into air.”

Arguably many of the destabilizing conditions and competing social moods that defined late-19th century France are with us today with even greater intensity. Yet, despite this, painting like an Impressionist in this day-in-age can seem pretty innocuous. What, after all, encapsulates the Sunday dilettante stereotype more than a plein air painter of gardens, street-scenes and forests? Why is this? Well, for one, if everything solid inevitably dissipates, then this must include our associations to Impressionist painting. We of the 21st century are, for the most part, acclimatized to the technical signs and devices of Impressionism – as we are with most other modern art “isms.” The once radical visual cues of the modern plein air tradition are rendered insubstantial and common by their routine and commoditised appearance in, for example, big summer blockbuster exhibitions at major art galleries; or, if we avoid art galleries like the plague, in the commodities and simulacra of popular culture more generally. Renoir pencil-case anyone?

So, is painting en plein air a done deal, its demise not worth much grief? Why not just leave the idea of making and celebrating art in the out-of-doors to earnest hobbyists? At the very least such a non-response might help coax the more historically literate among them to finally head inside, get dry, and start directing more concerted creative effort at something that’s…well, thought-provoking and relevant. Why not?

Here’s why not: because never has the idea of being in the open and making art exposed to the vicissitudes of an altering climate been more resonant and relevant than today. We in the early 21st century are not, as yet, so comfortably estranged from the environmental forces of our planet and its atmosphere. The tangible evidence proving a disjuncture between how the earth works and self-regulates and how human beings, especially in our “developed” world, live in its midst is mountainous. Thankfully, our cities do not yet require the atmospheric protection of huge firmamental domes popularized in science fiction (unless you count central air conditioning). And yet we should be disquieted that today’s best dystopian sci-fi often resonates more like in-the-ballpark speculation than mere fantasy, that its writers can draw on the projections of this here-and-now world for their most cynical takes on what we have to look forward to. These authors reflect what the eternally pessimistic 19th century German philosopher Arnold Schopenhauer said of Dante: they draw ideas from the actual world in order to write their Inferno.
Today it’s not the line between the natural world and the artist’s studio that a true plein air practice highlights, nor any fissure between an aesthetic establishment and an avant-garde, as it was in 1870s France. Rather, we must creatively revitalize what the expression en plein air means. And we can do so by attaching it to those artistic practices engaged in expressing conscious concern for the natural world, and our rooted place on the planet. What sort of artistic engagement am I thinking of?


Peter Beckett

What has me rethinking the idea of creative production en plein air are what I’ll call the painting-installations of the Walter’s Falls-based artist, Peter Beckett. In a word, Beckett paints pictures that respond to his experience of the natural environment. His paintings are not so much objectified depictions of this environment as they are raw responses to it. By virtue of their having been created within, and in response to, a natural surround, the paintings in a sense belong to this surround. Beckett’s paintings are consequently most effectively exhibited as components of larger environment-based installations; his paintings work best as objects literally entwined with the world, not set apart from it, like traditional landscape painting. While I grant the idea of painting as a visual response to pan-sensory stimuli is not exactly a new idea – here in Canada Jock Macdonald had a similar notion in the late-1930s, which he claimed to have retrieved from Cezanne – Beckett’s practice revitalizes and poeticizes it with contemporary resonance.

Beckett was born in Cooksville, now eastern Mississauga, at a time when a seemingly endless phalanx of barns, livestock herds and crop fields made it difficult to know precisely where Mississauga ended and Etobicoke began. The two, of course, remain indistinguishable to this day, just for different reasons. What he calls “the systematic destruction of the landscape of his youth” has given Beckett a greater appreciation for the natural integrity of the farmland settlement region where he lives today and anywhere he travels. It has also provided him with greater appreciation for making his art outside, in response to the open air. Beckett has plied his unique plein air practice in various locations across North America, from Grey County to northern Ontario, east to (and including) the Atlantic Ocean, and south to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has also spent a spring painting in Paris and a winter in Ibiza, Spain. Since the early 1980s Beckett has developed a practice that is both firmly his own, and clearly steeped in at least two traditions, one superficially and the other more deeply.

On the surface, just looking at his work, Beckett might seem to be another abstract painter with an expressionist bent; that is, he seems driven by a combination of existential angst and formalist repose. He writes about painting as a process, not an end, as a means of getting beyond the ego, losing self-consciousness. After Abstract Expressionism’s halcyon days in the 1940s and 50s I think this sort of rationale has actually had the opposite effect, making much gestural abstraction appear more like celebrations of subjectivity and individual consciousness than either’s negation. Anyway, the drips and broad brushstrokes, the traditional hallmarks of unchained individualism, creativity, spiritual becoming, and emotional wrenching, appear throughout Beckett’s painting. Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, early Philip Guston, and especially Franz Klein are all here, along with admittedly cooler moments reminiscent of Larry Poons and Ross Bleckner. Beckett’s surfaces bear the bold signs of mid-20th century abstraction – push/pull, edge, field, movement, flatness/depth – and thus, on their own, appear to be resolutely self-referential and introspective.

But I reiterate on the surface because, despite the fact that Beckett has and continues to shown his work within conventional gallery spaces, it is not so much the paintings alone that I find so captivating (although individually they are often beautiful), but their collective obedience to a centre of gravity outside the canvas and the gallery walls. This shared nexus is none other than the elemental coyote-yipping world of trees, wind, moon and snow. Beckett’s creative process is fundamentally ignited by his onsite experience of these outdoors. The drips, blobs and brushstrokes of his paintings emerge as responses to the sights, sounds, memories, and scents of specific places in real time and, as I’ve already mentioned, his work is at its strongest when it is integrated and displayed as part of these places.


The paintings are not only connected to an encroaching nature, they are also intimately tied to each other in an almost genealogical way. The creative lineage of one painting almost invariably overlaps onto another. Beckett’s work space, with a radius extending indefinitely from the top floor of his house to the sprawling escarpment glades and rolling fields that surround his lodging, is always something of a studio-cum-delivery room. To be sure, not all the paintings respond to the same set of sensory and emotional experience in an identical way. Some have lines that appear more plotted than others; some are explosive in colour, while others verge on the monochromatic. But there is always a sort of family resemblance suggested by the way Beckett’s creative production just seems to flow. In Beckett’s mind a painting, as it develops, will either take-off from where a previous one left-off, or become absorbed into it; and the finished painting will, in turn, become the immediate catalyst of future imagery. He writes, “when working from the model, a gesture drawing is the logical place to begin. When beginning without a destination in mind, the work may discover a gesture as a conclusion....or as the next beginning.” In any case, it makes little sense to think of any one of Beckett’s paintings as an isolated objet d’art; all finished works remain visually and conceptually connected to a familial past and future. (Beckett has written about the exception to this rule: the odd and rare experience of producing an “orphan,” a painting that doesn’t seem to fit within the overall flow of production).

Beckett summarizes the driving inspiration and continuity behind his work:
I see nature with its fabulous structures and infinite complexity as a source of
my sense of visual order. The paintings reflect something of nature’s own
diversity in their colour, shapes and textures. However, there is an attempt to
create more than a visual record; to include such things as the smell of the
woods or the sound of the rain.
Beckett’s idea of capturing “more than a visual record” demonstrates two things. First, it indicates his conscious and revitalized engagement with the plein air painting tradition, even if he doesn’t name it. Beckett’s practice is really about documenting a world that he is enmeshed in and, paradoxically, remains forever alien to and cut-off from. While painting, in the end, is always robustly visual, what Beckett’s document can’t be merely visual because the world they seek passage within elicits an embodied multi-sensory response; it does not wait for his contemplation, but comes at him, at us as it were, from all directions, requiring that our synapses fire on all cylinders. Constancy and over-stimulation define the tempo and temper of Beckett’s work.

The second thing Beckett’s statement reveals is that the single-most important backdrop to his work might not really be the self-referential and introspective story of modern abstraction at all, but Harold Town’s Tom Thomson. In his effusive, macho, curmudgeonly and thoroughly fascinating take on Thomson in The Silence and the Storm, Town (himself an important Canadian painter and founding member of the seminal 1950s Toronto Painters Eleven group) arrives at a pair of entwined conclusions important to us here. One, that it was Thomson’s “apprehension of sound and odour,” in addition his fidelity to visual observation, that made him such an accomplished painter of plein air subjects. Two, that Thomson, had he lived beyond 1917, would have been one of Canada’s first abstract painters, and one of its best. (Incidentally, it was Joan Murray who first postulated this latter theory in The Art of Tom Thomson from 1971). In other words, Town thinks that, in a very direct way, the sort of attending to the senses required of true painting en plein air is an important precondition for, not a hurdle to, the development of a mature understanding of abstract painting. Beckett, I don’t think, would choose Town’s exact words to describe what he does. His purpose is not really to use painting to “subdue” that natural world around him. If anything, he taps his experiences of this world in order to infuse his painting with untamed animistic energy. But Beckett would like the idea that, as an artist, he processes “the space not just in front but behind” his head.


The best way to experience Beckett’s paintings then are as installations, as part of the environments in which they were made. Integrated as such, his work helps to revitalize both the plein air landscape and abstract painting traditions. His is an art practice that is in constant call-and-response dialogue with the planet itself, and in a very unsentimental way makes us remember that we as individuals are, and remain, connected and overwhelmingly subject to environmental conditions. This is not a mere hippie truism. It is this fundamental link that will catch us off guard, should we choose to forget it. Sure, our raw inspections and interactions with the world present us generally with a very stable picture; and meteorologists, engineers, physicists and others of that ilk have uncovered all sorts of patterns that give us often very good explanatory and predictive power for otherwise utterly miraculous things like tornadoes, jumbo jets and the colour spectrum. But this stability merely underscores our irrevocable contract with the earth. Beckett’s painting-installations are, at their height, sublime and frighteningly raw. They remind us that in the end, whether or not we heed it, nature will always out, will always have the last word. One precondition to realizing our place in the world is to, like Beckett, bask in its flow.

Image Credits (top to bottom)

Premonition/Vision, 2000-07, oil on canvas, 48 x 66"

Untitled, 2007, oil on plywood, 30 x 48"

Untitled, 2007, oil on canvas, 36 x 48"

Untitled, 2007, oil on canvas-covered plywood, 24 x 68"


Images courtesy of the artist

3 comments:

Joshua said...

Peter is a great asset to the Grey-Bruce artistic community. And, an all 'round excellent painter.

- Joshua

Nuraffinah said...

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work and study

Manny Tacbobo said...

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